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Top shelf fantasy backups

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For starters, I want to make it clear that this week's column is about backups.

We generally don't take too kindly to reserves in fantasy sports. Sure, we'll fall over ourselves chasing after relief pitchers in our baseball leagues. But take closers out of the picture and we're not interested if their names aren't read during the pregame light show.

Among NBA sixth men, only Antawn Jamison is a sure thing to be owned in virtually all leagues. We'll hold backups in fantasy football as injury insurance, but was anyone all that proud of their selection of Larry Johnson last year? In fantasy baseball there is one place you're guaranteed to find pinch hitters and platoon players and it's called the available player list.

Then there's hockey. Here, the value of backup goalies comes down to a simple matter of mathematics. There are 12 teams in leagues using the default settings. Fantasy owners feel most comfortable when carrying three goalies. There are 30 teams in the NHL. See where this is going?

Most of us concentrate on starters on draft day. In doing so, we overlook three valuable characteristics of the ideal backup. First, the right defensive system (New Jersey, Ottawa, Dallas) promotes a low goals-against average. Second, backups often get their starts against non-playoff opponents. Third, they are less vulnerable to prolonged slumps.

As the season continues, backup goalies can fill one of two roles depending on your league type. In head-to-head leagues, they are perfect for spot starts. Remember, after this week is in the books, only six weeks remain until the fantasy playoffs. Every category win is critical and the goalie wins category is generally the closest matchup on the board.

I've identified several of the goalies below as spot starters. While not worthy of a long-term stay on your roster, these guys are ideal for a quick add/drop to bolster your weekly win total.

In a rotisserie league, the right backup can help preserve your goals-against average and save percentage while chipping in a few victories. If you're running away in the wins department, you're better off with a good backup than guys like Olaf Kolzig or Garth Snow, who can drag you down in other categories.

Let's start with the most valuable backup goalies. These guys deserve attention regardless of league type.

Ottawa Senators: Martin Prusek
Few backup netminders are hotter than Ottawa's Martin Prusek. Since Dec. 1, he is 9-1 with three shutouts. In those 10 games he has allowed 11 goals. Only New Jersey has allowed fewer goals than the Senators. With Prusek you know you have a talented goalie playing behind a disciplined defense.

Starting Monday, Ottawa begins a stretch of seven games in a 13-day period. Prusek is a solid pickup for Week 16 of the fantasy season as the Sens play four games against teams ranking eighth or lower in the Eastern Conference standings. He should get another start in Week 17 as Ottawa travels to Dallas and Phoenix on consecutive nights.

Tampa Bay Lightning: John Grahame
Tampa Bay has scored the fewest goals of any division leader. Just how goal-starved is the Lightning offense? Just ask starter Nikolai Khabibulin, who recorded a 2.25 goals-against average in December and was rewarded with a 2-7-2 record. John Grahame has experienced similar hard luck. He's allowed two or fewer goals in four of his six losses.

Lack of goal-support aside, Grahame is your ideal fantasy backup. At 1.61, his GAA is second in the NHL to Miikka Kiprusoff. He plays on a winner. He plays behind a defense that has allowed the fourth-fewest shots in the league. Best of all: He plays. With 16 starts on the season, you don't have to wait an eternity between opportunities.

San Jose Sharks: Vesa Toskala
Like Tampa Bay, the Sharks owe much of their division-leading success to their goalies. During one 12-game stretch, the Sharks failed to score more than two goals in any single game but still managed to claim 15 of a possible 24 points. Toskala was carrying the Sharks at the time.

Starter Evgeni Nabokov was struggling, but has since regained his 2001 form. His resurgence has spelled less time for Toskala, but Toskala's production has not faltered. Toskala won at Colorado on Saturday and is unbeaten in three January starts with a goal-against of 1.00.

Next we have a group of spot-starters. These guys aren't going to see enough action to merit a full-time role on your roster, but they can be instrumental in helping you steal a category win or two as the playoffs approach.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Trevor Kidd
Ed Belfour rarely works on back-to-back nights. Toronto has been saddled with games on consecutive days nine times this year. Only twice has Belfour done double duty. He probably wouldn't have started Saturday against Philadelphia had the Flyers not knocked him out in the first period on Friday.

You know when you'll see Trevor Kidd. Of Belfour's 10 missed starts, nine can be traced directly to injury or scheduling. How have Toronto backups fared while Eddie catches his breath? Through seven games involving games on consecutive nights, they are 5-0-2. Look for Kidd to steal a win this week at Washington and again Feb. 16 at Pittsburgh.

New Jersey Devils: Corey Schwab
Playing behind the New Jersey defense is good work – if you can find it. Unlike Belfour, New Jersey starter Martin Brodeur loves to play on short rest. In eight opportunities for back-to-back starts, Brodeur has answered the call both nights six times. Corey Schwab's start on Saturday was just his third of the year.

Schwab's numbers (0.64 GAA, .971 save percentage) have been recorded at the expense of some poor opponents. Brodeur doesn't take many nights off, but I have a hunch Schwab will be in net on Tuesday at Pittsburgh. He already shut out the Pens once this year, and the Devils play the following night at home. Easy win for Corey.

Colorado Avalanche: Philippe Sauve
Before the season started, we thought David Aebischer's fantasy value was in the hands of the Colorado offense. Turns out he can take care of himself just fine. Aebischer leads the league in wins and has been a workhorse. Rookie Philippe Sauve, as a result, hasn't seen much action.

That should change in Weeks 16 and 17 as Colorado begins a stretch of seven games in 12 days. Sauve has won four of his last five starts and should see at least two starts as the club hits the road for six of their next seven games.

Detroit Red Wings: Manny Legace
Manny Legace owners would love to see Dominik Hasek return to health and a trade of Curtis Joseph. Under those conditions, the Red Wings would likely protect Hasek by giving Legace plenty of action. During his busiest month, Manny appeared in eight games, winning four with a GAA of 2.03.

Since then, starts have been hard to come by. This week's schedule looks favorable, however. Detroit is embarking on a five-game road trip that begins Monday in San Jose. It is unlikely that Joseph will start more than three of the games.

There are other backups to consider. For the Rangers, Jussi Markkanen is making a run at No.1 goalie Mike Dunham. Other guys such as Manny Fernandez in Minnesota or Philadelphia's Robert Esche are essentially 1-B options for their coaches. All deserve a look as you fine-tune your roster for the stretch run.

Good luck making your move. As my colleague Mike Harmon and I have just completed a week of discussing backup goalies and hockey goons, I think it might be high time to start talking some baseball – the focus for the coming months will be getting ready for those baseball drafts. Hope you're as ready as we are.

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